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Uninviting the Cephalopod from Dinner

Recently it was discovered that the oldest known relative of the octopus existed as far back as 330 million years ago. The oldest ancestor of modern octopuses lived 328 million years ago and had ten arms, according to research published last year [1].

It is believed that the Ancient Egyptians, and later the Ancient Greeks and the Romans ate octopus, lowering amphorae down into the sea or using bait to lure them before catching them. As such, octopus has become more than a culinary dish in many a country around the world. You could say that it has become an integral part of culture as well. However, this is by no means a watertight argument in favour of consuming it.

“The famous Roman gourmet and hedonist Marcus Gavius Apicius (25 BCE−37 CE) is credited for a cookbook De re coquinaria that is the oldest known and existing cookbook from the Antique. In Apicius' book there is a recipe for octopus with pepper, lovage, ginger, and the Roman fish sauce garum (Grocock and Grainger, 2006). There are only few surviving manuscripts with recipes from the Middle Ages. In a handwritten manuscript from the Fourteenth century (Schweid, 2014) an anonymous writer from the kingdom Aragon presents a Catalan recipe for octopus filled with its own arms together with spices, parsley, garlic, raisins, and onions, and prepared over open fire or in an oven.” [2]

There is undeniably a history behind the consumption of cephalopods, however the fishing and consumption of them have very much become a moral argument. The population of the world will most likely continue to swell and as such this will put a further strain on resources until such time that we run out or we find an alternative solution. Overfishing is a great concern, with recent studies showing that two-thirds of coral reef sharks and rays are threatened with extinction [3]. Additionally, there is the matter of proposed farms to breed and raise octopuses for consumption. This too is a moral issue. One such farm will be in Spain’s Canary Islands and hopes to provide a million per year for consumption [4].

It could be argued perhaps that farms may result in fewer octopuses being caught in the wild, leading to a resurgence in the wild cephalopod population (although given the greed of the human race and our ever-growing desire to consume and expand, I find this unlikely). Around 350,000 octopuses are estimated to be captured in the wild every year, 10 times more than in the 1950s [5], which does make me wonder how long this can continue.

Octopuses are incredibly intelligent. They are known to create ingenious methods to camouflage themselves and to create homes. They are solitary creatures who do not enjoy being imprisoned and as such will take the opportunity to escape if possible; a famous example of this being Inky the Octopus who slipped out of his tank, slithered down the drainpipe, and escaped into the ocean from the New Zealand National Aquarium, never to be seen again [6].

Furthermore, it is believed that the cephalopods can feel pain. Therefore, if we have an intelligent creature which can feel pain as well as distress and suffering [7], you could argue that not only is the idea of farming them for food abhorrent, but the concept of eating them at all is outdated and wrong.

I tell no lie when I say that I have eaten cephalopods before, both squid and octopus, however it is a practice that I cannot foresee myself continuing. Aside from being morally wrong, I cannot help but feel greatly concerned that we as a species are on a one-way path to overfishing which will lead extinction of this species and many others on land and in sea.

This will not have a quick conclusion and as such it may already be too late. However, I do believe that further discussion is required and, if nothing else greater regulation enacted both in the UK and internationally to ensure that farming, fishing, and consumption are controlled. This would ensure not only that we do not eradicate them but also that they are treated humanely. We, the dominant species of this planet, must always hold ourselves more accountable in matters such as this. It is almost certainly our duty and our obligation.



Edward Littleton is a writer and poet from North West London, now residing in peaceful Wiltshire with his family. He enjoys reading, history, politics and current affairs.

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